Onerous ovens: why is cleaning the cooker such a chore?

As I write Thanksgiving was a few days ago, when most Americans traditionally cook a very large meal based around roasted turkey. Most Brits – and other countries of course – have the same thing coming up soon in the form of Christmas, and there are lots of other celebrations around this time of year that seem to feature cooking and food quite heavily.

Whatever your traditions, then, it’s a time when many of us frown critically at the dark, sticky depths of our oven and wonder if, perhaps, we should attempt to give it a clean. Or at least pay someone else to come and clean it.

Why is oven cleaning such a difficult and unpleasant job, anyway? It’s not that hard to clean other surfaces, is it? Why are ovens so particularly awful?

Well, to explain this, we first need to understand fats.

Fats vaporise during cooking.

Most of the grime in your oven is fat, combined with the carbonised remains of… something or other. The sorts of fats that are common in animal and plant products have boiling points around the 300 oC mark (animal fats typically having higher values than plant oils), but they start to form vapours at much lower temperatures, and certainly at typical cooking temperatures there’s plenty vaporised oil around. Besides, under typical conditions most oils will “smoke” – i.e. start to burn – long before they get close to boiling.

We’re all familiar with the idea that fats don’t mix well with water, and herein lies the problem: all that fatty gloop that’s stuck to the inside of your oven just doesn’t want to come off with standard cleaning methods, particularly when it’s built up over time.

Can chemistry help us here? What are fats, chemically? Well, they’re esters. Which may or may not mean anything to you, depending on how much chemistry you can remember from school. But even if you don’t remember the name, trust me, you know the smell. In particular, nail polishes and nail polish removers contain the simple ester known as ethyl acetate, otherwise known as ethyl ethanoate. (Some people say this chemical smells like pear drops which… only really helps if you know what pear drops smell like. Look, it smells of nail polish, okay?)

Fats are esters (image source)

Anyway, the point is that esters have a particular sequence of atoms that has a carbon bonded to an oxygen, which is bonded to another carbon, which is in turn double-bonded to oxygen. This is a bit of a mouthful, so chemists often write it as COOC. In the diagram here, oxygen atoms are red while carbon atoms are black.

There are actually three ester groups in fat molecules – which explains why fats are also known as triglycerides.

In terms of general chemistry, esters form when a carboxylic acid (a molecule which contains a COOH group) reacts with an alcohol (a molecule that contains an OH group). And this is where it all starts to come together – honest – because you’ve probably heard of fatty acids, right? If nothing else, the words turn up in certain food additive names, in particular E471 mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, which is really common in lots of foods, from ice cream to bread rolls.

Glycerol is a polyol — a molecule that contains several alcohol groups (image source)

Well, this reaction is reversible, and as a result fats (which are esters, remember) break up into fatty acids and glycerol – which is a polyol, that is, a molecule with several alcohol groups. Or, to look at it the other way around: fats are made by combining fatty acids with glycerol.

And the reason it’s useful to understand all this is that the way you break up esters, and therefore fat, is with alkalis. (Well, you can do it with acid, too, but let’s not worry about that for now.)

Strong alkalis break up fats in a chemical reaction called hydrolysis — the word comes from the Greek for water (hydro) and unbind (lysis) and so literally means “split up with water”. Humans have known about this particular bit of chemistry for a long time, because it’s fundamental to making soap. As I said a few months ago when I was banging on about hand-washing, the ancient Babylonians were making soap some 4800 years ago, by boiling fats with ashes – which works because alkaline compounds of calcium and potassium form when wood is burnt at high temperatures.

The grime in ovens is mostly fat.

The really clever thing about all this is that two things are happening when we mix alkali with fat: not only are we breaking up the fat molecules, but also the substances they break up into are water-soluble (whereas fats, as I said at the start, aren’t). Which makes them much easier to clean away with water. Obviously this is the very point of soap, but it’s also handy when trying to get all that baked-on gunk off your oven walls.

Now, in theory, this means you could get some lye (aka sodium hydroxide, probably), smear it all over your oven and voilà. But I don’t recommend it, for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s going to be difficult to apply, since sodium hydroxide is mostly sold as pellets or flakes (it’s pretty easy to buy, because people use it to make soap).

Sodium hydroxide, sometimes called lye, is often sold in the form of pellets.

But, you say, couldn’t I just dissolve it in water and spray or spread it on? Yes, yes you could. But it gets really, really hot when you mix it with water. So you need to be incredibly careful. Because, and this is my next point, chemically your skin is basically fat and protein, and this reaction we’re trying to do on oven sludge works equally well on your skin. Only, you know, more painfully, and with scarring and stuff. In short, if you’re handing lye, wear good nitrile on vinyl gloves and eye protection.

Actually, regardless of how you’re cleaning your oven you should wear gloves and eye protection, because the chemicals are still designed to break down fats and so… all of the above applies. It’s just that specially-designed oven cleaners tend to come with easier (and safer) ways to apply them. For example, they might come as a gel which you can paint on, and/or with bags that you can put the racks into, and may also be sold with gloves and arm protectors (but rarely goggles – get some separately). They might also have an extra surfactant, such as sodium laureth sulfate, added to help with breaking down grease. The main ingredient is still either potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide, though.

Well, possibly, but also not really, if you’re sensible.

As an aside, it makes me smile when I come across an article like this which talks about the “serious” chemicals in oven cleaners and more “natural” ways to clean your oven. The “natural” ways are invariably weak acids or alkalis such as lemon juice or baking soda, respectively. They’re essentially ineffective ways of trying to do exactly the same chemistry.

And okay, sure, the gel and the bag and so on in the modern kits are newer tech, but the strong alkali? Nothing more natural than that. As I said at the start, humans have literally been using it for thousands of years.

A point which really cannot be repeated enough: natural does not mean safe.

Fumes can be irritating to skin, eyes and lungs.

Speaking of which, you will get fumes during oven cleaning. Depending on the exact cleaning mixture involved, these will probably be an alkaline vapour, basically (haha) forming as everything gets hot. Such vapour is potentially irritating to skin, eyes and lungs, but not actually deadly toxic. Not that I recommend you stick your head in your freshly-scrubbed oven and inhale deeply, but you take my point. It might give food a soapy, possibly bitter (contrary to what’s stated in some text books, not all alkalis taste bitter, but do not experiment with this) taste if you really over-do it.

In short, if you’re cleaning your oven yourself: follow the manufacturer’s instructions, make sure your kitchen is well-ventilated, leave the oven door open for a while after you’ve finished and, to be really sure, give all the surfaces an extra wash down with plenty of water.

Put the cleaning off until January – after all, the oven’s only going to get dirty again.

And that’s… it, really. Whether you’re cleaning your own oven or getting someone else to do it for you, the chemistry involved is really, really old. And yes, the chemicals involved are hazardous, but not because they’re not “natural”. Quite the opposite.

Or you could just leave it. I mean, it’s only going to get dirty again when you cook Christmas dinner, right?


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4 thoughts on “Onerous ovens: why is cleaning the cooker such a chore?

  1. Interesting article, but I still have a question: in my experience, fatty and oily deposits are harder to remove with normal means the more and longer they have been exposed to high temperatures.
    Tiny oily droplets and deposits around the induction cooker are no problem at all, and the frying pan also poses no problem, even though it reaches 170°C on occasion.
    But if droplets of the same olive oil have been baking along on the enamelled oven tray, they become much harder to remove. Could this be because the volatile low-viscosity components evaporate, leaving more tarry, sticky components behind? Or does the actual chemistry of the oil also change?

    From my electronics work I know that all sorts of materials (e.g. plastics) that are more or less inert at room temperature can become quite corrosive and hard to remove when they melt and partly decompose at higher temperatures.

    One last cleaning tip: I found that just a tiny bit of low-viscosity paraffin oil (lamp oil, C5-C20) on a cloth works very well to remove sticky oily deposits from surfaces, much better than soap. It also helps to remove other sticky stuff such as label glue. The only drawback is that it is mineral oil, so in the end, one still has to clean the oil itself away with detergent. And oh, it also doesn’t work for ovens …

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    • Good question. I think there are polymerisation reactions going on (see also “seasoning” of cast iron pans). For unsaturated fats, this could be simple addition polymerisation (there are C=C bonds around, after all), or it might be radical polymerisation. We have high heat, a metal surface which might act as a catalyst, and plenty of oxygen — it makes sense. So basically it bakes into a hard plasticky layer that’s harder to remove than liquid residue.

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